The Spectra of Outsider Art
Simply by definition, the ancestral roots of Outsider Art can be traced back 17,000 years to the caves in Lascaux, France during the upper Paleolithic era. On those “gallery” walls inside the caves were many works of art made by anonymous artists who were “untrained and untouched by culture.” From that point on throughout history there have been Outsider Artists making art but not being recorded or recognized.
The term Outsider Art didn’t become part of the vernacular of the art world though until 1972 with a book of that title by Roger Cardinal. However, the history of what the term refers to began with French artist Jean Dubuffet’s 1947 manifesto introducing the concept of Art Brut (raw art).
This manifesto defines Art Brut as “works produced by persons unscathed by culture, where mimicry plays little or no part (contrary to the activities of intellectuals).” This was really a first attempt at categorizing art that was created in this nature. He goes on to declare that these artists, “derive everything from their own depths, and not from the conventions of classical or fashionable art.” Then in 1972, Roger Cardinal wrote his treatise on “art brut” but since the book was being published in England and the publisher wanted the title of the book to be an English phrase, they agreed upon the title of “Outsider Art”. Roger Cardinal then defined the creative Outsider as an artist who is, “possessed of an expressive impulse and should then externalize that impulse in an unmonitored way which defies conventional art-historical contextualization.” The stage was now set but over time many new characteristics were added to the cast.
Even Dubuffet, soon after his manifesto, felt he had to create another more inclusive term Neuve Invention to include artists that didn’t quite fit into his very strict definition of Art Brut –those that did have some contact with the existing culture but chose to remain outside of its expectations. This was the first cell of the many cells that was to become the organism known as Outsider Art.
Unlike other art movements that are established by their connections to style and aesthetics (i.e. Impressionism, Expressionism etc.), this outsider “movement” is more like a spectrum of individuals, natural styles, and natural aesthetics than a movement in itself. The artists that are considered part of it establish their own space on that spectrum. Most have no formal training, just a strong desire and often an obsessive need to express their “inner” worlds through art. The spectrum runs from the extreme cases of artists who are locked away from society/culture (in institutions and prisons and often their own “mental prison”) which do fit Dubuffet’s strict category of Art Brut and on the other end are self-taught artists who have normal contact with society and culture but have no training in the “art” of art. Some might even have some training but abandon or disregard that training and just do it in “their own way.”
What does all this mean? And how does it affect our larger perception of art in this genre?
The exhibit In & Out at The Van Der Plas Gallery on 156 Orchard Street in NYC, attempts to answer these questions by example. Adriaan Van Der Plas, owner and director of the Van Der Plas Gallery purposely put together a diverse grouping of work ranging from raw to spiritual to occult to political to very personal; and included visionary, intuitive, self-taught, outsider, singulier and bursts of mainstream passion. It’s a show about human nature.
Outsider Artist Perceptions
As with any categorization, the subjective interpretation of its meaning is often most powerful when defined by the people to whom it most directly applies. So I asked many of the artists included in this exhibit for their view of what Outsider Art means and where they find themselves on this wide-open spectrum.
As an example of the gray areas within the definition of Outsider Art, the article on Ross Brodar in Raw Vision #40 asked the question: Outsider or Mainstream? Brodar’s work is raw and powerful. He was a self-taught street artist who began painting during a prolonged stay in a therapeutic environment when he was a teenager. Though Brodar certainly meets the criteria to be called an Outsider he was not included in the Outsider Art Fair. In response to his not being allowed “in” he rented a truck and parked it outside of the Outsider Art Fair with his paintings hung inside it — a performance that garnered him a lot of attention including a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal. Brodar was eventually included in subsequent Outsider Art Fairs.
Candyce Brokaw, whose art pours out of the unconscious tension of her past trauma of rape and incest sees Outsider Art as “an inner vision that projects either inside the eyes and brain or projecting it out onto the canvas sometimes it’s the ‘HANDS that really SEE’, as if the eye balls are located in the finger tips, guiding the pen or paint brush, moving about at ‘their own will’ on whatever surface. I am a tool no different than a brush or pen.” She thinks of herself as an outsider/visionary artist.
Angela Rogers also considered on the Outsider Spectrum commented, “I am an outsider artist because I am self- taught and because of my journey with depression, trauma, addiction, epilepsy and brain surgery. I consider myself a visionary artist first because mysticism and the occult is the focus of my work. Being from the south there is a southern gothic resonance to my art sensibility.” She sees her work as an “intuitive process” where she creates a special world and then creates its inhabitants. Her goal is to “go back to that pure and wise child state of mind where imagination holds no limits or boundaries.” The text in her paintings is a “stream of consciousness/automatic writing, written freestyle in that particular moment, channeling information from a deep primal place.” Angela is a member of HAI Art Studio, “a gathering place for artists who are living with mental disabilities.”
On another part of the spectrum stands Johan Wahlstrom, Swedish born artist, who left a very successful musical career in order the express himself in paint. Wahlstrom is situated on the self-taught segment of this imaginary spectrum. In answer to the question “do you consider yourself an Outsider Artist he responded: “I would say that I am an outsider artist in the respect that I have never attended an art school and that the reason that I started to paint was my absolute need to express my self through my paintings about today´s society where I paint social criticism and social anxiety. Most likely if I did not paint, my head would explode.” His work is a hybrid of a primitive/neo-expressionist sensibility.
Then as an example of an artist whose place on the spectrum is hard to pin down, there is Brian Dowdall. He defines Outsider Art as “primitive visual raw passion.” He often paints with house paint on cardboard where he creates his wonderful animals that whisper with a gentle, innocent roar that is filled with the sound of wonder and spirit. He describes his personal vision on the American Visionary Art Museum’s website in a section called “our visionaries”, “When I paint I use colors and animals and goddess images that are more loving than this world. These ancient energies of creation in animal spirits and the earlier ritual belief systems of the goddess or pagan belief systems are where I find inspiration. Very often I place animals and imaginary mermaids, goddesses, mythological characters or guardian angels together in my work that would not be true of the natural world. I want to show harmony. People tell me my work makes them happy.” Dowdall has been placed on many segments of the Outsider Spectrum but is usually referred to as a visionary and contemporary folk artist while he defines himself more generally as a “painter of animals, spirits and goddesses”.
Running alongside of the Outsider Spectrum is the work of Pamala Rogers. Pamala is a “trained” artist who is Director for Expressive Art Programs for the Shield Institute in New York City and Pure Vision Arts, Manhattan’s first specialized art studio and exhibition space for artists with autism and other developmental disabilities. She does not consider herself an outsider artist because as she says, “I have a degree in fine art and a doctorate from Columbia University and do not technically fit into that category. I consider myself more of a contemporary visionary artist because of the spiritual, esoteric, and mystical imagery in my work.” Pamala’s work mirrors both the micro and macrocosms that define the inner and outer universe (in & out) that we all inhabit.
In & Out
When I asked Van Der Plas why he titled the show In & Out he said, “I’m just looking for good art, and that could be self-taught or an academically trained artist like Pamala Rogers, – in and out – it’s all the same to me. It’s my deep understanding of intuitive art that it can come from any direction. The exhibit title, In and Out, is actually a double entendre with the alternative meaning coming from the late Kevin Wendall (FA-Q) who was in and out of jail. He was in and out of prison cells, but he never gave up. He is pretty much the inspiration for the show.”
These artists as well as the others included in this show, Kevin Wendall, Itsvan Kantor, Konstantin Bokov and Adjani Okpu-Egbe share the space within the Van Der Plas Gallery until June 14. There will be a closing party with performances by Angela Rogers and Monty Cantsin (Itsvan Kantor) Friday June 12.